Workplace harassment used to be accepted as commonplace – or, in fact, not even recognised as harassment at all. Today, that’s all changed: it’s something that employers have a duty to take seriously. Not only is it a pressing ethical concern, it also inhibits productivity and makes the company less attractive to workers who’d like to further themselves in a positive, harassment-free environment.
What is Workplace Harassment?
The line between acceptable banter and harassment is one that should be clearly drawn. The government defines harassment as any “behaviour that makes someone feel intimidated or offended.” If it’s connected to a protected identity characteristic, like age, sex, race or religion, then it’s likely to be illegal under the equality act.
So, what can we do about harassment in the workplace? Let’s run through four steps that employers might take.
Everyone in your organisation needs to be aware of the rules concerning harassment. You should offer training sessions to distinguish what’s harassment from what isn’t, and what recourse that people have when they feel that they’re being targeted. You can’t hope to regulate all human interaction in the workplace, but you can establish boundaries that will protect your employees.
You should find devise a way for employees to submit complaints anonymously, and then track the problem over time. The earlier that issues are identified, the earlier that they can be addressed. Some employees might not want to put their names forward for fear of creating an uncomfortable situation, but they might still wish to point the finger in the direction of a problem that you would otherwise be unaware of.
Of course, it’s possible to take this too far and create more harm than you’re actually addressing through a Stasi-like surveillance apparatus. Make sure that you’re giving everyone a chance to fight their own corner.
Resolving workplace conflicts and dealing with problem behaviour actually requires quite a specific skillset. For this reason, it’s worth bringing in outside consultants. This might mean people who are able to provide training, as well as legal experts from an employment law firm who’ll ensure that you are meeting your obligations under the law.
If you’re going to rid the workplace of harassment, then you need to be unequivocal when you’ve found it. Issue suspensions, written warnings, and other punishments to those you’ve found guilty. Where punishment is visible, it’ll send a message to the rest of the workforce.